Sunday, June 26, 2011

The ranch gives wisdom

On a Ranch or Homestead, one learns something new every day. For the past week, I have been on agricultural duty at Rock Bottom Ranch, and have learned quite a bit. In a single Tuesday, I built a head-catch for the goat milking stand, had my first truly successful goat-milking session, assisted with the construction of a 'hoop house' green house, and discovered the most humane way to kill a chicken. On the same day, I did morning both morning and evening chores to feed, water, and shelter the many animals, and collect their food products. In the end, it was a workday almost as epic as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Delilah the goat now gives milk in spades—up to four to six quarts a day. Harvesting the white liquid, however, has been a challenge for me. Until recently, I had never retrieved milk fit for human consumption from the dear goat. Every time, she kicked or knocked over or defecated in the bucket. What little milk was salvaged went to the young pigs.

This week, such results would not do us well. We had two children's camps in session (for 4-6 and 6-7 year olds), and both planned to make goat cheese. The pressure was on to keep them supplied.

I needed to improve the milk setup and improve my skills. First, I built a head catch for Delilah, based loosely on a diagram I found online, adapted for our specific stand. Next, Caitlin gave me a milking lesson, advice on how to lead the dance with the reluctant mammal. I learned from Caitlin a number of tricks and techniques, to supplement those I had earlier learned from Hannah.

Prior to bringing Delilah, we shooed visiting cats away and closed the milkroom doors—to block Delilah's biggest distraction, the baying of her kids. We brought her onto the stand. With head catch in place, the goat's range of motion was restricted—and she seemed calmer. Goats have two udders and humans have two hands, but we need several skills. First there is the pinch-and-squeeze with the fingers, which I can do well enough to get by, although my left hand is somewhat clumsy. Then, there is accuracy at milk-squirt, as one must fill a bucket through a small hole in its lid. Most importantly, however, one must learn to take calm control of the milking—strategically pet and massage the goat, feed her grain, push her against the wall when she attempts to jump over the bucket, and generally keep her feeling calm and snuggly... but also let her know who is boss. A multi-pronged challenge, like a karate match. And, like in a spar, one is wise to stay relaxed and fluent, despite the mental urge to tense up. And both activities feature a contact that does not break. Once one takes hold of the goat's udders, one should not let go until the milking session is over—much like the eye contact which does not break between the battling karateka. Although milking is not a fight, it is similar in being a game of control.

Tuesday night, it was my turn again to milk the goat. This time, I applied my new knowledge, and gathered one and a half useable quarts, one small squirt at a time. By the end, my hands were tired, but I felt like a child who had just rode a bicycle without training wheels for the first time.

At my next milking, Saturday morning, I generated two and a half quarts—enough to feed both Delilah's babies, and keep a bit for breakfast. (We allowed the babies to nurse for their first several weeks, but have now switched to bottle feeding; it is more work but makes them become friendlier to people.) Athena and Apollo suck heartily at plastic teat.

Back to Tuesday: After assembling my head-catch, I returned to the back pasture, to work on the hoop house (greenhouse). Throughout the week, the hoop house, which came as a giant assemble-it-yourself kit, has been an area of focus for us all. The instructions are barely decipherable, and the design is outrageously complicated. Hence, it has been cause of great frustration for some members of our team. Nonetheless, I always find it thrilling to build a purposeful structure. We dug post holes, ripped large rocks from the ground as they barred our path (they don't call this place Rock Bottom Ranch for nothing), placed the metal upright posts, assembled the archway, and generally bolted together many pieces of metal (and used all manner of tricks and levers to force the pieces together, as they didn't fit so well on their own.) We sweated and grunted through it, on the ground and on high ladders, under a hot sun. Progress on the greenhouse has been much slower than hoped. Even so, at the end of each day, progress is made.

On Tuesday, after a short time on the greenhouse, Amy announced her departure to deal with two chickens. One was a young meat bird, which had been run over by the chicken tractor, and had a broken hip. The other was an egg-layer, who was caught eating eggs. With such cannibalism, the hen negated her purpose on the farm. The sentence for both was death, with Amy and I as judge, jury, and executioner.

I hate to kill animals. I have done it several times. It has always made me feel like I will vomit, and made me think 'who made me god, to have the right to take life?' Curious then, that I am now a practitioner of animal agriculture, where killing animals is all in a day's work (although it does not yet feel that way to me.)

Here at the ranch, we try to give our animals the best possible lives, and the swiftest deaths. I took the egg-laying hen. I examined the Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (a valuable book which we used both at The Homestead and here.) It described the way to kill a chicken instantly: to dislocate its head from the neck. I remembered how we used this method at The Homestead, but encountered difficulties in executing the process by hand. Storey's next paragraph had a solution: use your feet, and a broom. I read it carefully. I took hold of the hen, placed its head under the broomstick, stood with one foot on each side, anchoring broom and head flat against the ground. I gave the bird's feet a swift, hard pull. I not only dislocated the neck, but pulled the head off completely. The bird went into death throes, and spattered blood all about. Surprised, I dropped the flailing bird. It did somersaults over the ground, as the postmortem electricity surged through it. Other chickens trotted over, and pecked at their sister's detached head. Evidently, they don't share our taboos on cannibalism.

Although it may sound gruesome, the method has its advantages. It is easy to execute, and kills the bird in an eye-blink. Another common way to slaughter a chicken is to put it in a killing-cone, and cut its jugular vein. I am less impressed by this technique, as the bird may suffer for several minutes, while it bleeds out.

The chicken is now in the crockpot. Delilah is out grazing on grass and flowers and aspen leaves. The other laying hens roam about the ranch, pawing the earth in search of worms and seeds. They enter their coop to lay eggs. Inside, I continue to find eggs that were pecked open. I patched a hole through which magpies had been entering, but the problem persists. Evidently, another egg-eating hen is on the loose. We shall keep watch.

The baby goats frolic about the yard. Athena has grown her own tiny udders. One day, she will join her mother among the milk-givers. She will present new challenges at the milk-stand. Every goat is different, and I still have so much to learn.

Hoop house photo by Caitlin Bourassa; everything else by yours truly.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Night prowlers and day petters

Every ranch has its cat. Rock Bottom Ranch is home to three: Titan, Teton, and Cecil. They entertain children, keep the ranchers safe from mice, and threaten native songbird populations. (The dark side of domestic cats has been scientifically documented. Hence, I contend that the ranch should cap its population at three.)

The cats show remarkable tolerance for the visiting children who cannot resist the urge to pet—sometimes en masse. Quite recently, one child held Titan in her lap, while six other hands stroked his fur, and one poked his eye, by accident. The cat didn't flinch, as tolerant as a father lion at play with cubs. Titan seems to have accepted such handling as part of his routine, as natural as climbing fences or stalking birds in the wetland.

In the woodlands beyond the ranch, other cats lurk. Titan's big relatives. They walk silent as shadow; they see us but remain unseen. They observe the ranch and our animals, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. We kept a few domestic geese at the ranch, until the bobcat found them. Before dark, we must lock the goats inside, for cougars are on the prowl. Living with predators is part of ranch life. We protect our livestock as best we can.

Over a year ago in winter, snow covered the mountain peaks, and the foliage upon them. In search of exposed greenery, an elk ventured downhill, to the valley. He found Rock Bottom Ranch, and its goat pasture. He set to munch, beside his fellow ungulates. Enamored with the luscious grasses, the elk stayed in the pasture--perhaps until a little too late. A cougar leapt from out of hiding; her claws and jaws delivered a swift end to the elk. He became sustenance for the cat and her cub.

Of all terrestrial animals, cats seem the most graceful. Humans are awed by their elegance, stealth, athleticism. They populate our stories and art, and we name countless sports teams in their honor.

I present from my sketchbook a lynx and an imaginary beast which looks sort of feline. I have not yet had the privilege of so close a view of a wild lynx... it is based on photos. I had one close encounter with a cougar in Oregon. That story is for another day.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

These goats are in your hands (some of the time)

Photo by Caitlin Bourassa, features goats Charlotte and Corona.

I have some anecdotes to share about our goats. But first, I will share a bit of my sketchbook from Rock Bottom Ranch. These images are all drawn from life—and our animals are moving targets, a challenge for the artist.

Delilah the goat has joined Laura Jean the pig in a proud procession of Rock Bottom Ranch mothers. Delilah's birth-giving was comparatively painless. She delivered her two babies without hitch or tangle. Then she delivered the placenta, which we composted before she had a chance to eat it. (Goat mothers occasionally choke on the afterbirth.) And with the placenta gone, she could focus on her new younglings, whom she watched, licked, nursed. We named the babies Athena and Apollo. They have grown fast in three weeks. When firstborn, Athena was shaky on her feet, and spent most of her time sitting and resting. Now, she runs and jumps and frolics about the yard, alongside her twin brother. They butt heads in playful combat. (John the vet has already led us in “dis-butting” the kids once, but Apollo's horns are already growing back.) Delilah produces milk for her babies, and then some extra. I recently led children in milking her; the mother goat was amazingly patient when a sequence of small hands grabbed her teats. Soon, we can get some good cheese from Delilah's lactation.

The goats are popular among tourists and ranch hands. They are clever and curious animals. Whenever a door or gate opens, they cannot resist going to examine what lies on the other side. They are skillful in outwitting fences. If there is a hole or breach that a goat can pass through, or a gate they can open, the farmer will know in minutes. And each goat has a unique personality. Among our goats, Delilah is shy and cautious, Charlotte is inquisitive and aggressive, and Grey is an irascible old man, liable to butt his fellows with his horns at the slightest provocation. However, Grey mostly gets along with his sister Rosie and lady-love Corona. Corona is the matriarch of our goat herd. Where she goes, the others will follow. (With the possible exception of Deb, who is mostly friendly, but quite independent.)

This week, as part of staff training, we brought Corona and Charlotte for a walk up down the Rio Grande trail and up a juniper-covered hill. The aging Corona (who is Delilah's mother and Charlotte's grandmother) panted and puffed on the way up, but still used her hooves to efficiently traverse the rocky slope. On the way back, Corona determined that she wanted to reach the hill's base in the swiftest possible fashion. I remarked that Corona was “falling down the hill and taking me with her” as I strained on her leash, and scampered to keep up with her downhill trots and jumps.

This past Friday at Rock Bottom was a challenging day. We pushed to get the ranch looking slick and shiny for a special dinner event involving special guest Melissa Coleman, and many noted members of ACES and Roaring Fork Valley communities. I volunteered for lawn-mowing duties, only to discover that both lawnmower and weed-whacker were out of order. And so I reconnected with one of my favorite hand tools—the “golf club” or weed cutter, which one swings like its namesake to slice through plants. After I had hacked for a bit, a comrade suggested that mowing would be accomplished more readily by goats. Following the suggestion, we led the goats to the yard and kept them there. Through the process, only Corona needed a leash; the other goats would not venture too far from the matriarch. Typically, goats are voracious herbivores. But when we brought them over to the yard, they did little grass mowing. Instead, Deb and Corona munched on a shrub while Grey and Rosie just wandered around, particularly in the driveway where they were a hazard to the pickup truck, as it went back and forth on supply runs. We returned the goats to their pen, and I returned to my weed-smacking workout. Like cats or three-year-old children, goats have their own agenda. Luckily, most of them (but not Grey) are friendly to young humans and enjoy a good pet. In that instance, they do make our jobs easier.

As for the yard, I accomplished what was needed by hand, and then lent my hand to comrades. Collectively, we accomplished all else. The Coleman event was a success.

Flash, a goat kid who was on loan to us until recently, accepts grass from a human kid.